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Monday, February 02, 2009

Transformation as subject and process

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
Keith Johnson & Joseph Saccio: Transformative
Through Mar. 1, 2009

Transformative is the second show together at Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville for sculptor Joseph Saccio and photographer Keith Johnson. (Their first is reviewed here.) In this exhibit, they offer two different takes on the notion of transformation.

For sculptor Saccio, the concept is expressed both in his use of materials and in his overarching metaphor. Saccio uses found objects of both natural and synthetic nature. He transforms them through a process of manipulation, coloration and combination. Saccio is particularly drawn to wood, which in its various forms takes well to carving, bending and painting. Consistent with his technique, he uses both found natural wood—massive tree trunks, twisted driftwood branches, splintered twigs—and processed wood. The paired works "Witch Queen of the Forest" and "Her Husband, the Warlock with the Wondrous Wand" include bamboo fencing and spirals of oak hoops. The spirals enclose mutilated painted doll parts; the fluorescent green paint on the doll in "Her Husband" has a very evocative and eerie glow. The sense of a living presence in these two works is highlighted, ironically, by the addition of plastic leaves.

Saccio's transformative metaphor is a concern with the processes of life and death, death and rebirth. In his materials, he breathes new life into found objects by situating them within new contexts. But the metaphor is also, and more importantly, expressed through his compositions. In the large "Memorial: From the Fire," rigid trunks of Arbor Vitae and cedar wood, carved and painted, thrust upward from a blackened base of metal mesh covered with tar and a pile of dirty yet sparkling coal. The trunks are pierced with metal spikes. A sense of desolation is present. But, in keeping with his metaphor, four of the posts offer the possibility of new life. Scarlet buds of painted fiberglass and resin sprout from or near the top, the notes of life charred yet irresistible.

Beyond their emotional power—which includes a refreshing reservoir of humor as well as chords of grief—Saccio's sculptures are remarkable for their fine compositional balance. That balance is evident in the small wall sculpture "Burst." It is dominated by coils of oak hoops painted in purple and magenta and roughly coated with beeswax. Like a giant Slinky, they surround globs of hardened foam painted fluorescent yellow and orange. Green cane shoots protrude from the foam and through the spaces between the hoops, each long, arching tendril ending in a dayglo pink plug. The three-dimensional balance is complemented by the eye-popping balance of colors. Similarly, the delightful "Flowers for Duchamp" creates its gestalt through the combination of a sinuous carved driftwood branch with accordion cardboard files, among its several disparate elements.

For Keith Johnson, transformation occurs both within his gridwork of photographic images and over the course of a series of photos. Johnson has created the grids either by shooting the same scene repeatedly or by showcasing similar images arranged either randomly, chronologically or on the basis of an overall compositional balance.

"Old Growth Sprawl Forest" is a 4-image-by-4-image grid in which each image depicts one forlorn leafless tree stranded on the median of an upstate New York commercial strip. Taken individually, these images might make a statement about the caging of nature in our contemporary consumer dystopia. Displayed as a unit, each tree can be seen as an individual, almost a series of strangers in a strange land. That they are connected to each other—if alienated from nature, their nature—is symbolized by the sagging horizontal lines of utility wires that glide from image to image. (This theme is further teased in many of the images by the background presence of utility poles, domesticated simulations of trees further distanced from their wild origins.)

As Johnson explains it, these images are about typologies, in some cases, or about time. "EW Falls" is a nine-image grid shot of the Eli Whitney Falls over a five minute period. It documents changes in the light on the rushing water within that short span of time. But it isn't necessary to know what the photographs document to appreciate the work on the level of aesthetics. Each individual shot, and all taken together, look like a well-balanced abstract charcoal drawing.

The centerpiece of Johnson's portion of the show is "Suite Niagara," a series of 10 3x3 nine-image grids all shot of Niagara Falls. It starts, at left, with images of the falls, the Maid of the Mist cruising in the background. This grid is the most overtly documentary of the suite. One of the benefits of viewing the images in a grid such as this is that we are challenged to look closer. In searching out the differences between individual shots the viewer takes more notice of the details: the way the water looks in each shot, the variations in the billowing of the mist. Over the course of the suite, the images trend more toward abstraction as Johnson's subject becomes less the falls per se and more the qualities of light on the water and the spray in the air. In the suite, transformation occurs within the sequence of each grid. But the suite also documents a transformation in Johnson's way of looking at and photographing the falls.

There will be two artist talks in conjunction with this show. On Sun., Feb. 8, at 2 p.m., Joe Saccio will discuss his sculpture. And, rescheduled from Jan. 28, Keith Johnson will present a large screen PowerPoint presentation "10 Years in Search of Nirvana with St. Lucy" on Wed., Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

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